Boots on the ground at CEQ
“It takes about two minutes for me to just become ‘Boots’ to everybody,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s easy. There’s a lot of Mikes in this world.” He added, “I can count on one hand the number of people in this building who call me by my first name.”
“This building” is the White House, where Boots was recently promoted to lead the Council on Environmental Quality from his former post as the agency’s chief of staff.
That means a lot more people are going to be learning his name.
Boots, 43, has been acting CEQ chairman since mid-February, when his longtime boss, Nancy Sutley, stepped down from the post. Her deputy, Gary Guzy, left to work in a private law firm earlier this year. So the administration handed the reins to Boots — CEQ’s third in command — until a Senate-confirmed appointee gets into place.
So far, there’s no official word on a nominee, and Boots said he doesn’t know how long he’ll be at the helm.
“There’s a process underway to identify who a permanent chair might be, but I don’t want to get ahead of that process,” he said. “I don’t have a sense on timing, but just focused on getting the job done in the meantime.” He wouldn’t comment on whether he’s in the running or would be interested in keeping the job.
For now, he’s working out of the office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House that was occupied by Sutley. It’s a large office with a sitting area, a conference table and photos of President Obama on the wall. He also displays a miniature wind turbine, photos of his two kids and a painting of Death Valley.
In the new gig, Boots is one of Obama’s top environmental policy advisers. The office is charged with coordinating environmental efforts across the government and overseeing the National Environmental Policy Act, the law that gave rise to the office in 1969.
Like any CEQ chairman, he said, he expects to be spending a lot of his time “thinking about implementation and modernization of NEPA, since that’s part of the statute that created this office.”
The Obama administration is still working on long-awaited guidelines for agencies to incorporate greenhouse gas emissions into NEPA reviews after first issuing draft guidance four years ago (Greenwire, Feb. 25).
Beyond NEPA, Boots said, he’ll be focusing on the administration’s Climate Action Plan, Obama’s State of the Union pledge to conserve federal lands and efforts to promote sustainability across the federal government.
He spends a lot of time working with White House counselor John Podesta and energy and climate adviser Dan Utech.
“I think Dan and I — given just the offices that we’re in and running — are the two folks that Podesta relies on most to deliver” on some of those environmental priorities, Boots said.
All three of them are relatively new to their posts. Utech got the job late last year when Obama’s longtime aide, Heather Zichal, left. He was Zichal’s deputy since 2010. And Podesta joined the White House early this year.
Podesta and Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, are among those who refer to him as Boots.
Not a ‘caretaker’
Amid the turnover in top White House environmental positions last year, some outsiders fretted that the issues could take a back seat in the administration. Others have expressed surprise that the White House hasn’t nominated a replacement after knowing for months about Sutley’s departure.
Clinton-era CEQ Chairman George Frampton said in a recent interview that “CEQ has been relegated to such a minor role” in the Obama White House that the delay in getting a new chief confirmed is “par for the course” (Greenwire, Jan. 28).
Boots disagreed with the notion that CEQ has taken a back seat in the Obama White House. And he said having a lot of people working on energy and environment is a good thing.
“In previous administrations, where you only had maybe one office or one person in a high-profile spot trying to promote a lot of this work, that was a harder battle,” he said. “There’s a fuller team here.”
Fans of Boots say the office is in good hands.
“I think one of the great things about having Mike there is that this isn’t just sort of a caretaker who’s going to sit on his hands and keep the seat warm,” Guzy said in a recent interview. “You have someone in place who can continue on in a vigorous way to get that work done and carry out the president’s agenda, even while the process of finding a full-time chair and getting a person nominated and confirmed is underway.”
Former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar credited Boots with helping to shape much of the Obama administration’s environmental work.
“Mike Boots served as a cornerstone to making the conservation agenda happen the last five years, including America’s Great Outdoors, 10 national parks and national conservation areas, and the monuments designated by President Obama,” Salazar said in an email.
Family dinners, late-night emails
Boots has been at CEQ since the start of the Obama administration.
He got to know Sutley when they both worked for California Gov. Gray Davis (D), and he knew former Obama energy and climate adviser Carol Browner from his days at U.S. EPA during the Clinton administration, when she was head of the agency.
“A lot of the old Clinton folks were in the transition office, so it was a combination of Carol and Nancy who talked about coming in to do something,” Boots said. He joined CEQ as associate director for land and water in 2009 and was elevated to chief of staff in early 2011.
Prior to landing at the White House, he was the vice president for sustainable markets at SeaWeb, an ocean advocacy group, and was the Washington, D.C.-based environmental and natural resources adviser to Davis.
His first job out of graduate school was a gig at EPA working with then-water office chief Bob Perciasepe, who is now EPA’s deputy administrator. Boots had focused on water issues in his master’s program at Syracuse University and was told to go meet with Perciasepe, another Syracuse alumnus. After a few years in Washington, he moved back to his home state, California, to work as a policy adviser to then-EPA regional chief Felicia Marcus in the agency’s San Francisco office.
Boots grew up near Los Angeles, but he and his two older brothers each consider different cities to be their hometowns.
Their father worked for a construction company based in Chicago, and they moved around a lot. “I was born in Tennessee, we moved to Chicago, moved to California, moved back to Chicago. We lived in Korea for four years when I was a kid, just a lot of back and forth.”
He wants his two children, ages 6 and 9, to see a lot of the country, too, so they travel whenever they can.
He’s known by his staff for his firm commitment to family dinners. He gets to the office “crazy early” every day, around 6:30 a.m., he said, and tries to leave between 5 and 6 p.m. to eat dinner with his kids and his wife, Shelley Waters Boots, a consultant and another Syracuse alumna (that’s where they met).
Then he gets back online, and his staff can expect late-night emails. “They hate me,” he said. “They wake up in the morning with a whole long pile of stuff from me.”
But that was part of the deal when he took his first job at CEQ.
“I took this job and I said to Carol and Nancy, ‘I’ll take it, but I want to know my kids,’” he said. “For them, it’s a little bit of normalcy, when Dad can just be around and playing and reading and trying not to use my BlackBerry and disrupt it.”